Ljubljana puts its own unique spin on the European tradition of Christmas markets by celebrating the holiday, not once, but three times. Possibly the best Christmas Market in Europe, Slovenia’s Festive December party starts when they switch on the lights at the end of November and continues into January of the new year.
Enjoy this video from the Christmas market in the festive, car-free center of Ljubljana and then read on to learn more about holiday traditions in Slovenia.
Ljubljana’s Artistic Holiday Lights
The holiday lighting scheme for the center of Ljubljana emerged from the mind of the late artist Zmago Modič. Although there are modifications and additions to the display each year, the basic theme is the all-powerful energy that is created when all of the elements of the universe and the community work together.
That’s why you’ll find a meteor shower made of lights on the main boulevard, Slovenska Cesta, as well as stars, planets and even a reference to human sexuality in overhead lights throughout the pedestrian zone.
While Slovenia is regarded as an historically Catholic country, you need to go into a church to find the religious inspiration for the Advent season leading up to the birth of Jesus on Christmas Day. Decades spent under Yugoslavian communism, as well as commercial influences like “Black Friday” sales, mean that the celebration in the streets is overwhelmingly secular, except for the occasional Nativity Scene. And, of course, there’s good old St. Nick.
The Arrival of Miklavs: Slovenia’s Saint Nicholas
At 5 pm on the eve of St. Nicholas Day, December 5th, Miklavs descends from Ljubljana castle to delighted crowds of waiting families with children. No jolly red suit or flying reindeer for this Saint Nick. He’s a bishop in a golden robe who rides through the Old Town on a float that resembles either a cloud or a baked potato; take your pick. He arrives in Prešeren Square as angels sing and devils distribute candy.
Some of the pictures in the post are from pre-Covid times in 2018. In 2020 and 2021, the public Miklavs events in Ljubljana were cancelled due to pandemic restrictions, but I’ll update this blog when we know the schedule for next year. There were also restrictions on stand-alone stalls in the Christmas market selling food and drink, but you could still enjoy a cup of spiced wine in restaurants and their attached outdoor seating areas and from takeout windows. Customers were required to show proof of vaccination, negative test or recovery, known here as PCT. Outdoor crowd events for New Year’s Eve were cancelled but restaurants and bars were allowed to remain open for guests with PCT.
What to Do, Eat and Drink at the Ljubljana Christmas Market
Each evening of December the lights in Ljubljana’s pedestrian center switch on at 4:30 pm. The streets and the river walks are lined with stalls selling gift items and local handicrafts.
I never got the nerve to try something called “hot gin,” but I tasted the mulled wine (kuhano vino) and a nice cup of mead, or honey liqueur. Be sure to taste potica, a nut-roll pastry that is the national dessert. There are as many ways to make it as there are cooks in Slovenia. Growing up in my Slovenian-American family, it was an annual holiday ritual for the whole family to crack walnuts for the potica filling. You can get the recipe for potica in English from Cook Eat Slovenia, but everyone seems to believe their own mama’s version is the best.
Music at the Christmas Market in Ljubljana
Local choir and instrumental groups perform free concerts in Mestni Trg, in front of the city hall. Every bar in the festive center seems to be blaring holiday tunes in English. Musicians roam the streets, with accordion players and organ grinders offering festive folk tunes for tips.
Ljubljana Castle also joins the festivities, with a much smaller Christmas market for those willing to hike up the hill or take the funicular ride to the top. Another festive way to enjoy the lights is to buy a ticket for a 30 minute cruise on one of the party boats along the Ljubljanica River.
You don’t need to fear the winter chill. Most of the outdoor bars have heaters and fur-draped seats. There are even heated mats where your dog can relax in cozy comfort. Be on the lookout for random moments like a couple of Instagram-worthy emus strolling through the crowd. The dragons that symbolize the city also find their way into the celebration.
Sustainable Christmas Tree Decorations
Ljubljana proudly wears its title of “European Green Capital” during the holidays. Be on the lookout for the Green Trees placed along popular shopping streets such as Wolfova, Čopova and Trubarjeva. School children, residents and visitors are invited to help decorate the living trees, which will be returned to nature after the holidays. But please don’t buy new ornaments; it’s a chance to recycle the decorations you no longer need at home.
Quiet Christmas Traditions in Ljubljana
On Christmas Eve, the city center empties out early. Merchants were closing their stalls at 4 pm. Except for a few local hangout coffee bars, the entire country is about to shut down for a two-day holiday. This means that much of Ljubljana’s population clears out to visit family in the countryside, where Božiček — the Slovene version of Santa — brings another round of gifts. My neighbors have a family gift exchange where everyone must show their talent, such as singing or dancing, before receiving a present.
Catholics attend Mass to celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ. Mass in English is celebrated at St. Joseph’s Church, just a few short blocks away from the Christmas market on Ulica Janeza Pavla II (Pope John Paul II street). Details on the English Mass in Ljubljana Facebook page.
Slovenian Independence and Unity Day is the day after Christmas. It’s a holiday marking the public announcement of the 1990 vote for Slovenia to become an independent country. You can pay a special visit to the President’s open house. No gifts, but the photo op is priceless!
Dedek Mraz: Happy New Year from Old Man Winter
New Years Eve in most respects is a bigger holiday than Christmas in Slovenia. Dedek Mraz arrives with another round of gifts! “Grandfather Frost” or “Old Man Winter” originates in ancient Slavic mythology but became popular in the former Yugoslavia as a secular alternative to Santa Claus or St. Nicholas, as Total Slovenia News explains.
How to Wish Someone Happy Holidays in Slovene
You have an entire month to share good wishes, so it helps to know a few key phrases. “Vesel Božič” ( pronounced Ve-se-ew Bo-zheech) is the equivalent of Merry Christmas. “Srečno Novo Leto” (Srech-no novo lay-to) is Happy New Year. Anytime in December you can also say “Vesele Praznike,” or Happy Holidays.
Where to Stay during Festive December in Ljubljana
You have lots of hotel choices in Ljubljana, but I have a few suggestions if you’d like to be in the center of all the Festive December fun. Everything is accessible on foot, so you won’t need a car in the city. If you decide to explore the rest of the countryside, save money by reserving a rental car through Auto Europe before you leave the US.
Vander Urbani Resort in the heart of Ljubljana’s Old Town will put you just steps away from the riverfront walk. Of course, the tradeoff is that it might be a bit noisy until the mandatory closing of restaurants at 10pm and bars at 1 am. On New Years Eve, the party goes all night long. The Grand Hotel Union, centrally located behind the pink church on Prešeren Square, may be a bit quieter. Please note that New Years’ crowd events were restricted in 2021.
A few other reliable choices on the edge of the pedestrian zone: the recently renovated and value-priced B & B Hotel Ljubljana Park. It’s just a short walk from trendy Trubarjeva Cesta. A little more central is the City Hotel Ljubljana, which has a bountiful breakfast buffet. If the artsy alternative after-hours culture of the Metelkova district is your vibe, check out the Hostel Celica — a converted former prison and army barracks.
If you’ve been good this year and want to treat yourself to some luxury, try the elegantly restored Antiq Palace Hotel or the pretty riverfront Zlata Ladjica Boutique Hotel. Or admire the lofty views of the castle and the Alps from the high-rise Intercontinental Hotel Ljubljana. Thank you for browsing the reviews of all the hotels in Ljubljana on Trip Advisor to book your accommodations. It supports this blog at no cost to you.
And if you’re looking for another must-see attraction in Slovenia, Postojna Cave has a Nativity Scene with live actors during the holidays. Read my post on the Postojna Cave train ride, which makes the underground wonders accessible to all ages and abilities, year round.
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